What English Teachers in Vietnam Make

What English Teachers in Vietnam Make

for Taylor Mali

He says the problem with English teachers in Vietnam is

“What’s a Vietnamese kid going to learn from someone who decided their best option in life was to become an English teacher?”

He reminds the other dinner guests that it’s true what they say about English teachers:

“Those who can, stay in their home country; those who can’t, just teach English in Vietnam”


I decide to bite my tongue instead of his

and resist the temptation to remind the other dinner guests

that it’s also true what they say about bankers nowadays.


Because we’re eating at a French restaurant, after all, and this is polite company.


“I mean, you’re an English teacher, Jimmy,” he says.

“You’re not planning on doing this your whole life. Be honest, What do you make?”


And I wish he hadn’t done that

(asked me to be honest)

because, you see, I have a policy

about honesty and ass-kicking:

if you ask for it, I have to let you have it.


You know what I make?


I make Vietnamese students work harder than they ever thought they could

I make correct pronunciation feel like they won the World Cup for Vietnam

and an incorrect word feel like a motorbike collision

How dare you waste my time with anything less than your very best

I make students from small towns feel like they are ready to run the UN

I make high school students sit through 40 minutes of TED talks in absolute silence.

No, you may not use your electronic dictionary.

Yes, you have permission to criticize me.

Why, won’t I let you go to the bathroom?

Because you want to check your girlfriend’s text message, that’s why.


I make parents tremble in fear when I call home:

I hope I haven’t called you at a bad time,

I just wanted to talk to you about something Thuy said today.

Thuy said, “I think Vietnam is the most beautiful country in the world and I never want to leave.”

And it was the best thing I’ve heard since my mother assured me she trusts me.


I make parents see their children for who they are and whatever they want to be

You want to know what I make?


I make students imagine,

I make them question.

I make them respect tradition and invent the future with what they’ve got.

I make them read and write a 1-page essay on what they’ve just read

I make them realize America is not as cool as the movies

I make them speak, speak, speak

And then I make them understand that to become fluent in English, to become fluent in life, you have to sing your answers, paint your plans, live to dream

I make them show all their work in complete sentences.

And hide their incomplete ideas in poetry.

I make them pronounce the words “Thank You” with punched sarcasm in the case they ever talk to a Wall Street banker

I make them assemble the vocabulary needed to talk us out of this mess we’re in

I make them realize dignity is not found in numbers

It is found in words and living by them


I make them understand that if you got this (brains)

then you follow this (heart) and if someone ever tries to judge you

for being just an English teacher, you give them this (the finger)


Let me break it down for you, so you know what I say is true:

I make a goddamn difference! What about you?

Decades after fleeing, Vietnamese American filmmakers return to a changed country

Writer-director-actor Johnny Tri Nguyen in a scene from The Rebel (2007).

One recent morning in a French-style cafe, former San Jose resident Thien Do worked his mobile phone and iPad as he prepared for another day of casting actors for a dark comedy he’s directing.


Not far away, Dustin Nguyen, the co-star of the late 1980s TV crime drama “21 Jump Street,” was getting ready to roll the cameras for his next film, “Once Upon a Time in Vietnam.” And actor-writer-director Johnny Tri Nguyen from Orange County was in preproduction for his action film.


Nearly four decades after they fled the Communist takeover of South Vietnam, a small army of Californians — armed with cameras and scripts — have invaded the nation. Vietnamese-American filmmakers and actors, hoping to tap into a young population eager to be entertained by the big screen, have become a surprising artistic force in Vietnam’s emerging film industry.


“Every time I go to one of these industry gatherings, I see new faces,” Do said of the swarms of Viet Kieu, or “overseas Vietnamese,” filmmakers scouting locations and writing screenplays here.


Viet Kieu are now involved with at least half of the commercial films made in Vietnam — a stunning development considering that not long ago those who returned faced deep suspicion from the Communist government as well as opposition from staunch anti-Communists in San Jose and Orange County.

Read the full story by Mercury News Reporter John Boudreau here.

Free Legal Clinic For Low-Income Vietnamese Hosted By Asian Law Caucus

The Asian Law Caucus (ALC), a nonprofit legal services organization, will be hosting two free legal clinics for the Vietnamese community in San Jose on November 13 and San Francisco on November 15. The clinics will be specifically addressing workers’ rights issues. Please come by if you are have any questions about labor, employment, unfair wages, discrimination in the work place, or other related issues. Please also forward this information to anyone you may know who is in need of assistance so they may take part in ALC’s valuable service to our community. Vietnamese speakers will be available at both clinics.

Details are below (Update: dates for December clinics added):

Please call (415) 300 – 0483 or email vnlegalclinic@gmail.com to schedule an appointment. 

Tuesday, November 13, beginning at 5:30 p.m.
Tuesday, December 11, beginning at 5:30 p.m.
VIVO Vietnamese Voluntary Foundation
2260 Quimby Road
San Jose, CA 95122

Thursday, November 15, beginning at 5:30 p.m.
Thursday, December 20, beginning at 5:30 p.m.
Asian Law Caucus
55 Columbus Avenue
San Francisco, CA 9411

Download the Vietnamese language flyer hereALC Vietnamese Clinic Flyer

Print it! Send it! Spread the Word!


About the Asian Law Caucus: ALC’s mission is to promote, advance, and represent the legal and civil rights of the API communities.  Recognizing that social, economic, political and racial inequalities continue to exist in the United States, ALC is committed to the pursuit of equality and justice for all sectors of our society with a specific focus directed toward addressing the needs of low-income, immigrant, and underserved APIs.


Startups: Are Exits in Vietnam Possible?

Last week, I attended an awesome “Unconference” hosted by YouNoodle in SF/Silicon Valley.  It was a great event, and the organizers, Rebeca Hwang and Ricard Garriga did a great job pulling it all together.

I also had a chance to talk with friends in Silicon Valley about the startup ecosystem here and in Vietnam.

One key question kept recurring throughout the conversations. This was, “Are Exits in Vietnam possible?”

For those who aren’t familiar with this term, an “Exit” refers to the time at which the shareholders of a start-up can sell their shares to other investors or on a public stock exchange, thus unlocking the value of their equity. Examples of recent Exits are when Google acquired Youtube, or more recently, when Facebook acquired Instagram.  Both events allowed the shareholders of Youtube and Instagram to exchange their stock for Google and Facebook stock (respectively) and later, sell it on the public stock market for hundreds of millions of dollars.

In my experience, most entrepreneurs don’t necessarily want or need an Exit.  This is true especially in Asia, where if an entrepreneur can build a profitable and sustainable business, they’re perfectly happy maintaining ownership and control, and passing it to their children.

So who does care about Exits?  Venture Investors who’s business model is based on the assumption that can invest $1 this year in a start-up and get back $20-35 after that start-up makes it big after 3 years.  These investors can’t afford to collect dividends every year from a profitable business because they are using money from their Limited Partners, who expect to be repaid at the end of the fund’s life (which is usually 8-10 years).

How do Exits happen?  Most Exits occur through an Acquisition, like in the examples cited above.  An IPO is another possible Exit, but these are very rare.  Thus, when Venture Investors get involved, the measure of success for the start-up changes from a profitable/sustainable business to a “Exitable” business.

How does an Acquisition happen? This is a much more complex issue, but we can lay out some basic rules of thumb:

1) Acquisitions are done by large companies with a lot of Cash and/or Market Value (price of their stock on the market).  Again, look at the examples stated above, both Google and Facebook had strong Cash positions and/or market value of stock at the time of their respective acquisitions.

2) Most Acquisitions happen in markets with highly structured and transparent accounting and securities regulations, like the US, and occur at a sub-$30 million valuation.  For more detailed insights into Exits globally, read “Early Exits” by Basil Peters.

3) Exits are very expensive to execute, because there’s usually a lot of money involved, and the founders, managers, investors, and acquirers don’t want to get screwed or leave money on the table. Every Exit requires both sides to hire teams of lawyers and bankers to work out every detail of the deal and contractual obligations of both sides, in addition of the time from the shareholders/managers from both companies to build a strong and trusting relationship, which takes away time and attention from actually running and growing the businesses.

Now, let’s look at each of these heuristics with respect to Vietnam.

1) What companies would have a strong Cash/Equity position and would want to acquire a Vietnam-based start-up?

2) If the average Acquisition in the US is occurring at the sub $30 mil level, what would would you expect the average Exit value of a Vietnam-based start-up to be?

3) Given the lack of transparency in the accounting and securities environment in Vietnam (and many other developing economies), what would be the “cost of doing business” of acquiring a Vietnam-based start-up, and would this cost be higher (or the Exit value be lower) than in a more transparent environment like the US?

(If you are a venture investor, I’d love to get your thoughts on these issues)

If you’re an entrepreneurs starting in Vietnam, I am in the business of supporting entrepreneurs, so my goal is to help entrepreneurs find ways to be successful.  We are living in a truly global world, and just because you are from one country doesn’t mean you must stay in that country.  Studies of Silicon Valley start-ups show that more than half of founding teams have at least one foreigner as a key founding member.  While there’s no formal data about this in Vietnam, there are a number of successful companies like this in Vietnam, including Vinagame (now VNG) and Vietnamworks (Navigos Group).

If you’re starting in Vietnam, the best way is to build a profitable and sustainable business.  If you have a desire to achieve scale, look to scale globally, build relationships with international partners and focus on markets and customers where you can create value, raise capital, and find exits for you and your investors.

In the world of start-ups, anything is possible. 🙂

Computer Class Gives Vietnamese Orphans a Window to the World

Click to visit the Orphan Impact website!

The children sat at their desks, bare feet dangling next to power cords, as the instructors unpacked the small, plastic laptops. As they waited, they kept their eyes fixed on the tiny machines that transport them beyond the high walls of the neat but sparse orphanage — if only for a few hours.


“It allows me to know about the outside world,” Thu Thao, a shy and withdrawn girl speaking in a near-whisper, said of the class, which that day taught the youngsters how to search for pictures of Disneyland and Spider-Man on the white, low-cost laptops. The 12-year-old bounced in her seat in anticipation of the instruction.


Such simple online activities are second-nature to young people in Silicon Valley. But for these children, the computer class is a rare treat designed to give them a fighting chance in a nation where being an orphan often leads to a life of poverty. The program, Orphan Impact, which receives support from Santa Clara-based semiconductor giant Intel(INTC), aims to prove that computer training can alter the fate of those clinging to the edges of this pulsating metropolis of more than 9 million people.


“They are the forgotten children of Vietnam,” said Tad Kincaid, founder of the 2-year-old nonprofit.


“We are not just teaching them programming and IT skills,” he said. “We are teaching them 21st-century skills.”

Read the full story by Mercury News Reporter John Boudreau here.

An “Educated” Spanking


A 94. A 94?! There, on my final 8th grade report card, my Algebra grade had dropped from a 98 to a 94.  F&*#!!!!! No doubt, my bum was going to feel some heat when I got home that night.

I, like most other Vietnamese children growing up in America, experienced some sort physical or verbal consequence because my grades weren’t good enough. I had made a careless error on my math homework, I was caught watching TV rather than doing my homework, or I didn’t place in the school science fair. Unless you were that poster child that got A+’s in all subjects, managed to win the state piano competition, and served as President of the Student Council, no ear or rear end was left to be spared.

But in hindsight, those spankings were exactly what I needed. The consistent message from my parents in those spankings, their lectures, and everything else they did for my brother and me was that our education was the single most important thing needed to create a better life for ourselves.

Before I even started pre-school, my dad visited both public and private schools trying to find the best school for us. He interviewed every single one of my teachers before the school year started, and by the time I hit high school, I had already moved three times–all because my dad felt the prior school wasn’t good enough. In one of these occasions, we even moved to a new city before he found a new job. It was all about our education.

In the Vietnamese culture, before we can even walk, our parents try to ingrain the values of an education in us – right behind our most important values of family and respect . . . Yes, it was that important.

Our culture placed greater value on an education than material success. In an American society where we aspire to be the next Warren Buffet, Bill Gates, or Mark Zuckerburg, ancient Vietnamese times placed the Scholar above any entrepreneur, business leader, farmer, or artisan. An education earned you prestige and a way up the social ladder.

Starting as far back as the Ly Dynasty in 1075, performing well on the national imperial exam was the only way to improve one’s social status. Based on the Chinese mandarin system, the Ly Dynasty used the rigorous exam as way to identify the country’s top talent to make them government officials. The exam became a person’s entire existence. It was their only way up.

Even today, receiving an education is the focal point of any Vietnamese household – especially for those of us whose parents fled during the war. How many times have your parents reminded you of the hardship they faced, the sacrifices they made, and the opportunities they gave to you? We rolled our eyes at the time, but honestly, I get it now. My parents saw an education as an opportunity for my brother and me . . . It was an opportunity to create more opportunities.  It was the chance to create a life that my parents never had.

I had good grades in school (“good” by my standards, “not good enough” by my parents), went off to Berkeley, and moved into corporate America like a good Vietnamese child. Today, I live in a beautiful one-bedroom apartment, and for the most part, I travel, buy, and do what I want to do. I made the most of those opportunities, right?

No, not quite yet. It’s more than just getting a good job or making a decent living. It’s about how I take those opportunities and share it with others. What positive contribution have I made to my friend’s lives, my community, or the world around me? Inspired by my parents’ sacrifices, I now want to provide other kids the same opportunity to climb the social ladder, to succeed, and more importantly, to make a positive contribution in our society. Last year, I finally pursued my heart’s calling and moved into the nonprofit sector. I now run a private family foundation focused on providing low-income kids the chance to succeed and am doing a fellowship with an education reform group driving state and national policies in order to accelerate student achievement.

I recognized the importance of simply having access to a good education, and thus the opportunities to succeed. Everyone deserves that same opportunity.

Now, I’m not saying that the only way to make the most of your education and opportunities is by moving into nonprofit or education (in fact, I’d get death threats from angry Vietnamese parents for merely suggesting such a thing. “Non-profit?? How do you make money?”). Each of us, has our own way to make a difference – whether it’s with 1 notebook, 1 child, 1 school, or 1 country – we each have the power to make a difference. You were given the chance to succeed, so now, it’s your turn to give it to someone else.

Just to be clear, I’m not siding one way or the other with Amy Chua’s Tiger Mother argument. I’m not arguing for any particular parenting methodology – I’m simply asking for our generation to acknowledge the educational opportunities we’ve received – and the need to give others the same chance and opportunities we had.

Last month, OneVietnam celebrated “Back to School” month. But we don’t have to let the end of the calendar month end our celebration of education. Let’s keep things going. 1 out of 5 kids in rural Vietnam drops out of school because most cannot afford it. It’s a shame that in a country where education is so important, so few kids can go. This is my appeal to you – your call to action: start here, at OneVietnam. Choose an organization of your choice to start making a difference.  Even a dollar can help. But more importantly, be aware and engaged in this conversation – this conversation about your heritage, education, or about giving others the chance you had. That awareness and gratitude will open your heart to others. This is our chance to thank our parents and to show future generations the importance of a 96 on a report card.

About the Author: Born in San Jose, CA, Han moved to Texas where she grew up with her younger brother and parents. She received her BA in Mass Communications at U.C. Berkeley and now lives in Sacramento, CA where she serves as the Director of the Webb Family Foundation and as an Education Pioneer Fellow for the education reform organization, StudentsFirst. Han is an active swimmer, triathlete, and eater.

Disclaimer: The views represented in this article represent the author’s personal views and not those of her employers or any other organizations she is associated with.

Photo by Lucas Jans via Flickr (Creative Commons)

An-My Lê Wins MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship

An-My Lê
An-My Lê

The MacArthur Fellowship is kind of a prestigious thing. You get $500,000 doled out over the course of 5 years, with no strings attached. It’s meant to provide the financial freedom for people who “show exceptional creativity in their work and the prospect for still more in the future”–an artistic and scientific license of sorts. You can’t apply for a MacArthur Fellowship, the MacArthur Fellowship finds you.

This year, Vietnamese American photographer An-My Lê has been awarded a fellowship for her artistry in capturing military imagery on film. In addition to being a new MacArthur Fellow, Lê is a photography professor at Bard College. She, like many other immigrants, studied biology as an undergraduate, but later made the crossover to art and earned an MFA from Yale. Her latest photographic endeavors explore the Vietnam War.

Check out her interview below. Congratulations An-My!


Cover photo by Lois Conner via Art Asia Pacific

What OneVietnam is and Why it Matters

What is OneVietnam?

OneVietnam is an online network that allows people to fund projects in their homeland and see the impact right away.  Projects can be funded with as little as $1.  In return, donors get to see their money go to work building the places they grew up in through constant updates, pictures, and videos.

We were funded by Ford Foundation in 2010 and were acknowledged by Hillary Clinton as an example of positive innovation in 2012.

Why did we build it?

Chart: Yearly Remittances to Vietnam
Yearly Remittances to Vietnam

Each year, Vietnamese expats send home $8 billion, but only a fraction of that is directed towards philanthropic work due to lack of trust and transparency.

We built OneVietnam to give NGOs a central place to show the impact of their work.  For donors, OneVietnam provides a view into the day-to-day work of nonprofits on the ground, allowing donors to see where the needs are and how their money is spent.  This process dramatically increases transparency and fosters trust.

What makes it different from other funding platforms?

1)  OneVietnam is anchored around a common culture.  Instead of emphasizing specific causes, which few people may relate to, we emphasize a common heritage, which most people relate to and want to see prosper.

We don’t wake up everyday and think about giving our money away.  We do, however, wake up to a reminder of who we are everyday in the mirror.

2) OneVietnam empowers donors through an innovative program called iFoundation, which lets people own a foundation like Bill Gates but on a college student’s budget.

Your iFoundation is your own collection of nonprofits that anyone can donate to.  You track your nonprofits’ progress and choose where the money goes – give any amount to any nonprofit in your iFoundation.  The fact that you can choose to give zero funding to a nonprofit in your iFoundation creates an environment where nonprofits are eager to show their impact and you’re empowered to direct the change you want to see.

Here are a few of great examples of people’s iFoundations:

Minh Huynh

Viet Nguyen

Uyen Nguyen

What do you want to accomplish in 2 years?

1.We want to make donating a dollar to a nonprofit as easy as buying a song on iTunes.  People should be able to donate every where: on a laptop, a mobile phone, or at a live event, and through any means: credit cards, PayPal, or mobile transfer.

2.We want organizations to easily report their work from anywhere – in the field at a distant village in Vietnam or from their computer at their headquarters in Los Angeles.  This allows donors worldwide to track projects, identify the needs, and contribute to the solution.

3.We want 1% of the 2.2 million people in the Vietnamese diaspora to donate 1% of their paychecks each year.  That’s around $10 million a year.  If we grow that total by 10% each year, then by 2025 we will have raised nearly a quarter billion dollars.

What’s the big picture goal?

We want to return the power and responsibility to affect global change back to the people.  In a sense, we want to democratize philanthropy (Sorry Bill Gates).

We envision a world where philanthropy can be as much a part of our lives as checking our emails or making a Facebook update.  We want ordinary people to participate in identifying the problems and powering the solutions.

What’s the one feature you’re really excited about?

I’m really excited about the iFoundation program.  It makes philanthropy extremely personal.  Everyone’s iFoundation is unique and speaks to what matters most to them.  It adds another dimension to their identities.  I see Facebook as your social profile, LinkedIn as your professional profile, and iFoundation as your philanthropic profile.

How do you make money?

We don’t, yet. That’s why we need your support.  Don’t worry though, we have a plan for self-sustainability.

For each donation, we ask for an optional tip, much like Kiva.org does. Our users usually give about 10% of their donations.  At this point, the tips don’t add to much in terms of revenue.  When we hit the $1 million mark in donations each year, however, we will start to become more self-sustaining.

Until then, we need your help to keep OneVietnam running.  If you would like to help, please head over to our donate page – a contribution in any amount is appreciated and is 100% tax-deductible.

Facekini & Asian Aversion to Tan Skin: a Precursor to Racism?

On the beaches of China.

The newest trend on the beaches of China is the “face-kini,” a mask that covers the entire face, save the eyes, nose, and mouth. It’s a not-so-attractive accessory that screams a message louder than a simple fashion faux-pas: Asian people hate dark skin.

From ubiquitous caps to umbrellas on sunny days, we are taught to avoid the sun at a young age.  Fair skin equates to beauty and dark skin equates to a lower class.  It is a sentiment that originates from our history as an agrarian society where most people work in the farms and the upper class stayed inside.  One would expect the aversion to dark skin would fade as Asia shifts towards white colar jobs, but the popularity of facekinis seems to indicate it is ingrained deeper into our psyche than we thought.

A preference for fair skin at first seems harmless.  However, what happens when children that grew up believing that dark skin is bad become exposed to a multicultural society?  People of the world are more mobile than ever.  I’ve ran into a Nigerian man in Japan and a Chinese family in Mexico.  What prejudices will Asian children carry when all their life they have been taught to avoid dark skin?

Black Boyfriend / White Boyfriend

The irrational preference for fair skin extends beyond fashion, reaching into our family life.  A sad but often true experience with Asian Americans is the stark contrast in their parent’s reaction depending on the skin color of the person they bring home.  If you ask an Asian women how her parents would react if she brought home a dark skin boyfriend and you’ll find the answer to be generally negative.  With the older generation, there is no open malice for people with darker skin, just an irrational preference for those with lighter skin born from silly and outdated agrarian-society sentiments.

Get a Tan


Our cultural preference for light skin on ourselves causes an irrational bias towards those with darker skin.  In reality, it doesn’t matter.  It shouldn’t matter. But the fact is, it does matter.  It matters to the older generation and chances are, skin color will matter to much of the younger generation that are taught to prefer fair complexions.

For our society to progress, we have to eliminate these irrational prejudices before they evolve into something sinister.  It is an increasingly small world and we can’t move through it with a distorted view.

I suggest we start by taking off that facekini and getting a tan.

Olympic Silver Medalist Marcel Nguyen, and Me

From diaCRITICS comes this piece by diaCRITIC Jade Hidle , who gives us an Olympic take on Vietnamese identity using Marcel Nguyen, the Olympic silver medalist in gymnastics, as the launching point.  At the same time, Hidle turns inward and and gives us a beautiful reflection on her own struggles as a mixed Vietnamese. diaCRITICS is the leading blog on Vietnamese diasporic arts and culture, published by the Diasporic Vietnamese Artists Network. DVAN promotes the work of Vietnamese artists everywhere, and both DVAN and diaCRITICS are always looking for writers, contributors, and helpers.


Marcel Nguyen wins silver

On August 2nd, Vietnamese German gymnast Marcel Nguyen won a silver medal at the London Olympics in the men’s Individual All-Around. Straightaway, a friend—one who jokingly, tenderly calls me “halfer” for being Vietnamese and Norwegian, or “Viking,” as he would say—sends me a text message that asks, “What’s up with a German named Nguyen?” I know he is, in jest, ventriloquizing the ignorant, confused questions that strangers always pose to me about my mixed identity and my seemingly misplaced last name. But I know so many of the millions watching the Olympic Games must have been asking similar questions, in earnest, about a Nguyen representing Germany.

So I let my thumbs began to pound the texting keyboard on my phone to deliver a snapshot history of Vietnamese in Western Europe:  The French! The 1931 Exposition Coloniale Internationale featuring “Indochinese” people on display like circus attractions. And in WWI? Nearly a hundred thousand Vietnamese soldiers! And don’t forget about Philipp Rösler, the Vietnamese-born current Vice Chancellor of Germany. Recognize, yo! And what about me, the mixed Viet girl with a Norwegian last name? Would murmurs of my ethnic makeup cloud the shine of my silver medal? (Obviously, I would only earn an Olympic medal of any color in some alternate universe operating on a fantastical time-space continuum à la Star Trek.)

Continue here.